SpaceX made history tonight when the team successfully recovered the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket with a soft landing on a pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The primary purpose of the launch was to place into orbit 11 Orbcomm-2 communications satellites, which was successfully accomplished 15 minutes after first stage separation. The most impressive part of the mission though was when the first stage of the Falcon 9 re-ignited it’s main engines to slow down as it fell from the edge of space, then used thrusters and aerodynamic vanes on the side of the first stage to precisely steer and decelerate to a soft landing at a pad at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX’s previous attempts at recovering the first stage were on a floating barge in the ocean, and though they came close twice, both previous attempts ended with the booster landing too hard and exploding. Though Jeff Bezo’s company Blue Origin managed to recover their booster in a similar fashion in Texas last month, their rocket was much smaller and only flew to suborbital altitude (about 110 KM), where as the Falcon 9 booster carried 11 satellites to orbit. Recovering the large first stage in an orbital rocket, then refurbishing and reusing it, is key to greatly reducing the cost of placing payloads in space, and has been one of the main goals of Space from the beginning.
SpaceX did a great job of live-streaming the launch and recovery of the first stage, along with narration and live video of the SpaceX control room in Hawthorne, CA. The video showed a large number of young, excited engineers and support staff cheering on as each phase of the mission successfully progressed. Moments like this are great PR not only for SpaceX, but also for attracting young people to a career in Aerospace. Give credit to SpaceX founder Elon Musk for making space exploration exciting again, and attracting a whole new generation of engineers and scientists to the field.